Before a wildly enthusiastic audience in Miami’s Little Havana, President Donald Trump on Friday scaled back much of his predecessor’s policy on Cuba — taking a step back toward the kind of policies that attempted, but failed, to topple the nation’s ruling regime for more than five decades.
After denouncing the Cuban government and praising the Cuban people, the president delivered the message his audience was primed to hear.
“Effective immediately I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” the president declared, prompting the most enthusiastic, sustained applause of his 35-minute speech — and some cries of “Viva Trump!”
Actually, he isn’t doing either of those things. Trump is keeping much of former President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy. And the changes aren’t going into effect immediately; the order Trump signed at a table with the presidential seal was a directive to agencies to implement rules containing the new policies, something that could take months.
Trump unambiguously set a new tone, shifting to a more confrontational approach than Obama’s policy of engagement. Trump’s order will result in changes aimed at curbing tourist travel to Cuba and dealings with businesses owned by the Cuban military.
The objective is to force change in the country run by Raul Castro, brother of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are free, freedom of expression is guaranteed, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally recognized elections take place.”
Trump’s policy change is personal and powerful for Ingrid Carvajal, of Miami. She came to the U.S. on the Mariel boatlift at age 9, with little but the clothes she was wearing.
“I am very happy with the words of President Trump,” she said outside the Manuel Artime Theater, where Trump spoke. “Cubans deserve to be free and to do with their lives what they wish, not be forced to be in a tyrannical communist country for perpetual history. So I believe this is going to help pave a path for a true freedom for all Cubans.”
The recasting of U.S. policy toward Cuba was praised by the state’s Republican political leaders, many of whom were present for the speech. Warm-up speeches, filled with praise for Trump and criticism of Obama, came from Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami-Dade County Republican.
Also on hand was Vice President Mike Pence, who was already in Miami for a conference on Central America, several cabinet secretaries, and U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County Republican.
“More than anything else, this change empowers the people of Cuba,” Rubio said. “America is prepared to outstretch its hand and work with the people of Cuba, but we will not, we will not empower their oppressors.”
Diaz-Balart said the message to the Cuban people is: “President Trump stands with you.”
Missing from Friday’s event was one of the region’s fiercest critics of the Cuban regime, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade. Ros-Lehtinen has been strongly critical of Trump on many other issues and on Friday tweeted pictures showing how she was spending the day in Washington, including a visit to the National Air and Space museum with her grandchildren.
Demonstrating the pro-Trump leanings of the crowd, Diaz-Balart’s mention of Ros-Lehtinen, Cuban-American official U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Obama prompted boos.
The new policy wasn’t universally applauded. Outside Florida and New Jersey, the states with large Cuban-American populations, Cold-War era policies aimed at taking down the Cuban government don’t resonate. A poll released Monday showed 65 percent of voters support maintaining the Cuba policy launched by Obama. Just 18 percent opposed that rapprochement, in a survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of Engage Cuba, an organization that favors continued — and expanded — liberalization of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Many business leaders and elected officials from both parties see economic benefits to the U.S. from increased trade with Cuba, and don’t see why that nation should be treated any differently from all the other countries with poor human rights records that the U.S. does business with. Others say the Cuban people benefit as well from increased tourism.
“You would be hard pressed to find a Cuban living on the island who would say that U.S. engagement has not improved their lives,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said in a statement. His group wants to increase U.S.-Cuba trade and travel.
Some human rights organizations also opposed the change. José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said reducing interaction between the two countries would do nothing to improve the situation for the Cuban people — and would likely make it worse.
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., tweeted that Trump’s “Cuba policy is not about human rights or security. If it were, then why is he dancing with the Saudis and selling them weapons?”
Trump’s policy change wasn’t a surprise. Campaigning last year in Miami, Trump courted Cuban-American voters and was endorsed by Brigade 2506, veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro.
Announcing the action before a supportive audience — something millions more will see on television — provides a political benefit to Trump, who hasn’t been able to get his fellow Republicans in Congress to pass major legislation.
The Cuba policy change is the kind of action he’s been taking instead, ordering changes in areas that he can do on his own, such as withdrawing from the international climate change agreement. It shows him as a president who is achieving results — and does something to please an important political constituency.
The long-term political implications aren’t clear, even in Florida.
Older Cuban-Americans, who fled the country decades ago, remain especially animated by the Castro regime — and largely loyal to the Republican Party. Many younger Cuban-Americans, especially those born here, aren’t as doctrinaire as their elders about U.S. policy toward Cuba.
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, a congressional candidate hoping to succeed the retiring Ros-Lehtinen, didn’t feel compelled to support the tightened policy toward Cuba.
“President Trump’s Cuba policy changes do not fundamentally alter the direction of President Barack Obama’s vision of empowering the Cuban people,” he said in a written statement. “That’s because in the long run, if done right, President Obama’s policy of fostering contact between the American people and the Cuban people will lead to greater freedom on the island and human rights for its people than decades of a failed policy of isolation.”
Jose Sanchez, a Miami attorney who visited the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana after listening to Trump’s speech on the radio, said the policy changes would “starve off the American oxygen from the Castro dictatorship.”
Sanchez came to the U.S. from his native Cuba at the age of 17 with his family.
Also at Versailles, Carolina Lopez was wearing a “Hispanas for Trump” shirt. “I am with him. I agree with him. It’s not a free Cuba,” said Lopez, who came to the U.S. from Cuba with her parents when she was 21 months old. “ He’s trying to make things better for the Cubans.”
U.S. policy toward Cuba
The biggest changes:
Travel: Individual travel to Cuba under so-called “people-to-people” educational and cultural trips will be stopped. Those trips were largely a fig leaf for tourist visits to Cuba. Such travel will now require people to go as part of a group, with documentation about the activities taking place — which, administration officials said, aren’t supposed to include touristy activities such as spending time at the beach. And they’ll have to hold onto the documentation for five years.
Trade: U.S. businesses will be restricted from dealings with Cuban companies that are owned by the military or state security services. That’s a major change because the military-owned Grupo de Administración Empresarial, or GAESA, controls large parts of the Cuban economy, especially in the travel and tourism industries.
And there are some exceptions. The ban on financial dealings with military and security services, for example, won’t apply to landing fees paid by airlines and docking fees paid by cruise lines, allowing them to continue operations there.
Obama policies that remain:
Relations: The two countries will maintain diplomatic relations. Embassies will remain open in Havana and Washington.
Refugees – The so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed special immigration status for Cubans who arrived in the U.S. won’t be reinstated. Under “wet foot, dry foot,” Cubans who made it to U.S. soil were granted permanent residency after a year and a day. Obama ended the policy early this year, just before he left office.
Families: Family travel to Cuba and remittances from family members to relatives there won’t be restricted. Obama eliminated all such restrictions
Travel industry responds
JetBlue Airways: One of two major U.S. airlines offering commercial flights between Fort Lauderdale and several Cuban cities, JetBlue reiterated its commitment Friday to operating air service between the countries under the new rules. “We plan to operate in full compliance of the new president’s new policy,” the New York-based airline said in a statement.
American Airlines: The airline, which flies from Miami to a handful of Cuban cities, also said it was committed to continuing Cuba service.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings: The Miami-based company said in a statement it was pleased that cruises offered by its three cruise brands (Norwegian, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas) would be allowed to continue. Norwegian said the trips as well as shore excursions offered in Cuba comply with Treasury Department rules. “We were very concerned about any potential changes, given how popular Cuba itineraries have proven to be with our guests.” Norwegian said 70,000 passengers had booked to sail to Cuba.